Chapter headings nowadays are utilitarian things. Just a flat number or – in the increasingly common multiple-perspective works – the name of the point-of-view character.
It wasn’t always this way.
Older books used to open chapters not just with numbers, but with tantalising hints of what was to come. Each chapter would start with either a couple of sentences describing the contents – “wherein Mr. Mulcrambe discovers…” – or a more disconnected string of phrases: “an unexpected visitor – the late train – losing hope”. Sometimes, showing rather more restraint, it was simply a subtitle. TV Tropes has a page on the practice.
Notable examples include Robinson Crusoe, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland. In recent years, such long chapter headings have removed themselves from serious books, and are now primarily used for comic effect. Both Terry Pratchett and Rick make use of them, as does Walter Moers (an under-appreciated author whom I’d definitely recommend). They can also be used as a shorthand for Victoriana and steampunk – opening a book with such headings sets the expectation that the book will be set in a fog-wreathed London, or at least contain an excessive number of cogs.
It should be stressed that these introductions aren’t spoilers – they didn’t ruin the chapter’s twists, or give the game away. I never ended up disappointed because of the hints they provided. Instead, they were vague enough that spotting where they appeared in the chapter was a kind of game – from the start of chapter one, we know that Mr. Mulcrambe makes a discovery, but not what that discovery is.
I miss them, really. I liked the artifice, the concious crafting of chapters to follow arcs of their own, rather than being somewhat arbitrary sections before the author moves onto a new character. I like spotting each element as it appears, and I like speculating in advance on what exactly they will refer to.
But there is hope for those who look back fondly on the days of chapter headings that don’t fit on a contents page. The Madcap Fiction Machine is a generator for just such chapter headings.
You select a genre (ranging from Romance to Lovecraftian Horror), and press the button. The machine then generates, from a vast and multi-faceted pool, a set of phrases that could head a chapter. “More tentacles than any earthly thing” and “beauty in distress” are two examples of the end product. You get nine of them, and can lock and reshuffle to your heart’s content, should you be dissatisfied with the selection you get.
It does not, it is important to note, provide the chapter that goes with these snippets. Partly because the technology to do such a thing is in its infancy (and will hopefully stay so), partly because the Madcap Fiction Machine aims at the other side of the equation.
It is intended as a writing prompt generator, to provide ideas that people can put into longform prose, that people can build from and practise with, that people can use to kickstart creation. It even has a text box to write in (though you can’t save on the website).
I really like it – it’s charming and well-constructed, capturing the tone of old chapter headings and Victorian novels. Besides, I just really like anything that plays around with generation and words, looking for the rules that underpin writing. I don’t want computers to replace humans artistically, but I think it’s really cool that we can try.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m relatively closely acquainted with the designer of the machine. With that said, he didn’t ask me to write this (and frankly, promoting on a blog this minor would not be an efficient strategy). Were it designed by someone I’d never met, or deeply hated, I’d still think it was interesting.
The designer is on Twitter here, and posts short fiction here – I’d recommend following that second link, as he’s irritatingly talented. I’d say that Mr. Causes is probably the best one to start with.